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Before (The Awakening #3)

Chapter Text

The children were still playing on the lawn. That was what Barrett noticed first when he entered the front parlor. They continued to play in their slightly-out-of-fashion outfits, as cheerfully unaware of the men and women strolling down the street in the noonday sun as the men and women were of them.

It was a moment before Barrett noticed the cleric. Cleric Boyd was standing in front of a massive painting of what looked like one of the messier portions of the war that the Queendom of Yclau had been waging with a neighboring kingdom for centuries. Death and destruction and suffering could be seen everywhere in the painting.

Barrett must have emitted a sound, for the cleric turned. His eyes behind his glasses – grey, like Barrett's – were unreadable.

Barrett made an effort. "Where?"

"My wife has gone upstairs to lie down," the cleric replied calmly. "She is in mourning for our late son. Please sit down, Mr. Boyd. May I call you Mr. Boyd?"

Barrett nodded, his mouth stopped up as though someone had placed a hand over it. At Cleric Boyd's gesture, Barrett sat down on the couch again. He was acutely aware of the empty space beside him.

The cleric returned to the armchair next to the window. Behind him, the children laughed and whirled in a blur of color. Inside the parlor, nothing could be heard except the tick of the grandpapa clock.

It was the cleric, of course, who broke the silence. "We often fought, in truth."

Barrett forced his attention away from the small boy, who was victoriously holding up a blue ball, the color of the dusk sky.

After a minute, as though a response had been made, Cleric Boyd said, "Oh, yes. Often, from the time he first became a guard in the Eternal Dungeon. In his new employment, he acquired idealistic, unrealistic notions of the goodness of criminals. It warped his faith, causing him to adopt the heretical notion that men can be reborn within a single lifetime, without their bodies dying. During the last year of his life, he and I were barely on speaking terms."

One of the girls was speaking to the small boy now, evidently trying to coach him. He shrugged off her remarks. Cleric Boyd rose, and in a steady manner he walked over to the grim painting. With his back once more to Barrett, he asked, "Do you know the tale of the Martyr?"

Barrett looked again at the empty seat beside him, wishing that Clifford were there to hint at what Barrett should say. Surely it must be the peak of rudeness to tell a cleric that you knew next to nothing about his faith. He thought of the book weighing down his jacket pocket. The answer must lie somewhere there. If he could just delay long enough to slip out and read the book. . . .

"I know it's important," he heard himself say. It must be, he realized, if an entire painting was given over to the topic.

The cleric nodded without turning. "The Martyr tried to help others, in a manner that was considered unlawful in his time. And so he was executed. He died a terrible death, under torture." With one hand, Cleric Boyd indicated the figure of a half-naked young man, bound and bleeding as he was beaten.

A chill travelled over Barrett's body. He stared at the beaten figure, trying to make sense of it. Cleric Boyd said quietly, "And that was the end of the Martyr . . . or so the man who murdered him thought. But it was not the end. Not in the least. For the first time in our world's history, a man who had died did not remain permanently trapped in afterdeath. Instead, that Man was transformed and reborn. His soul entered into the body of a baby, resting in its mother's womb. Soon afterwards, the renewed soul began once more its journey into life . . . Who the Martyr became then and in his subsequent lives, no one knows. But we know that he paved the way for others. Millions of others, dying in the faith that they too could undergo rebirth. Millions of the faithful, reborn into new lives, dying again, and so the cycle continues of death, transformation, and rebirth. Those of us who know of the cycle – we dwell in the faith that this tale is true. Since we have never witnessed a rebirth, only our faith tells us that such things happen.

"Until now."

The children had faded from Barrett's consciousness. He was aware only of the straight back of the cleric, the cleric's hands crossed behind his back, and the bound hands of the Martyr that were crossed on the whipping post.

Slowly, Cleric Boyd turned to face Barrett. His eyelashes, Barrett noticed with incredulity, had turned wet.

"You are a miracle," said the cleric in a voice not quite so measured as before. "I have no other words by which I might describe you. You bear the qualities of my late son: his generosity, his courage, his drive for justice. All this I know, not only from my own observations, but from the testimony of your close companion, Clifford Crofford. You are like an echo of my son – and yet you are your own man as well, with characteristics acquired since your arrival here in this world. . . . My son died. My son was reborn as another man. I have seen it with my own eyes: the fulfillment of our queendom's faith."

If ever there were a moment when Barrett would liked to have been a man of eloquent speech, that was now. Or, barring that, to have Clifford at his side, to be his voice and his conscience. Finally Barrett managed to blurt out, "Mind damaged."

Cleric Boyd nodded, apparently undisturbed by this reminder. "My son's body did not entirely die, and so you were not entirely reborn four years ago. But since that time . . . From what Mr. Crofford tells me, you have grown a great deal since your awakening. You have continued to be reborn, even after your initial rebirth."

Cleric Boyd paused to fish a handkerchief out of his pocket, his hand brushing the chain of the marriage watch that was tucked into his vest pocket. He blew his nose. Then he continued, "My son was right. However rare it may be, it is possible for a man to experience rebirth between the deaths of his bodies. I wish my son were still alive, so that I could tell him I understand now. But you bear within you my son, however dimly you may recall him. So it is right that you should hear my apology." He returned to the armchair, seating himself and leaning forward. "I know that you do not remember my wife and me. But because of the unusual manner of your rebirth, you were born as a man, not as a baby in your mother's womb. This being the case, I hope that, as time goes on, you will be able to regard my wife and me as your adopted parents."

Behind the cleric, the front garden was empty. The children had disappeared; there was no sign of the croquet equipment from that game, played so long ago. . . .

Barrett asked, "Do you play croquet?"

The cleric looked startled; then he seemed to understand, for he smiled. "My wife and I are a little out of practice. But our daughters and sons remain avid players, even though they are grown. Perhaps, when they return home for the new-year celebrations, you would care to meet with them and play with them, as a way to get to know your new family."

o—o—o

Barrett was silent during the entire tram trip. Nor did he say anything on the omnibus that journeyed along the highway, its horse pausing now and then to graze. Not until the omnibus had deposited them at the palace gates did he speak.

He said to Clifford, "I'm like my father, aren't I?"

Clifford took his arm, keeping his voice low so that he would not be overheard by the nearby palace guards, who were checking the credentials of a group of distinguished visitors. "You're like both your parents. I suppose, though, that your mother is deeper hidden within you these days than before."

Before. Time past. Cleric Boyd had explained that to him, when Barrett asked about his vision of the children, suspecting that the man of faith would know the answer. It was not a sign of mind damage, Cleric Boyd had assured him. Or rather, he clarified – once Barrett had explained the vistas of awareness that the mind damage had opened to him – it was not a phenomenon that Barrett alone had experienced. Many men and women were granted glimpses of their past lives, in visions that were known as "time past." Some even saw time future.

Barrett looked over at Clifford, smiling as his warm arm held Barrett steady. Barrett remembered the girl whom the small boy had shrugged away. He remembered the young man who had fought bitterly with his father, rather than attempt to reach a mutual understanding. He remembered a man who regarded his own conscience as self-sufficient, without need of guidance.

Barrett put his hand over Clifford's hand that lay upon his arm. Barrett did not need time forward to know that Clifford Crofford, his guide and his love, lay in Barrett's future.